How to Write Man vs. Nature in a Screenplay

A screenplay without conflict is as good as a screenplay without a story. Conflict entails the obstacles the protagonist needs to overcome to achieve one’s goal or restore peace. 

Conflict in a story can come in two forms – external or internal.

You can read about internal conflict in my article “how to write internal conflict in a screenplay.”

On the other hand, external conflict is the opposite of internal conflict. It is not a struggle with one’s self. Instead, external conflict is the protagonist versus something or someone other than himself or herself.

Examples of external conflict include the following:

Man vs. Society

Man vs. Man

Man vs. Technology

And finally, in this article, we will deal with man vs. nature and how to approach this type of narrative in your next screenplay.

In a man vs nature narrative, the resistance or obstacle for the protagonist comes in the way of forces of nature. The hero or protagonist faces off against Mother Nature, her minions and her fury. 

This type of conflict is great for character development, as we also get to see how characters handle the emotional toll of what happens around them.

The man vs. nature angle is a powerful way as well to pass messages about the natural consequences of our actions.

Such a screenplay can teach about the importance of environmental conservation, preserving wildlife, and so on.

How can you enrich your screenplay with a man vs nature script? 

3 ways to integrate man vs. nature in a screenplay

What if scenarios – using fiction to tell a story about man vs nature

Here, your imagination is your greatest tool.

🤔 What would happen if global warming shattered the earth’s ozone layer and everything erupted in flames?

🤔 How would the world be if littering finally killed all life in our water bodies?

🤔 What if Mt.Fujisan erupted and turned the nearby towns into lava and chaos?

The what-if angle explores the hypothetical, using a fictional story to visualize the aftermath of a problem in nature. Facts are typically blown out of proportion for a dramatic look at the effects of climate change and so on.

In the 2004 sci-fi The Day After Tomorrow, the planet is thrust back into the ice age. A chain of severe weather cools down the earth below sub-zero temperatures.

Here’s a preview of the movie:

Jack Hall warns of the impending doom at a UN conference, but he is shot down. His research is dismissed by most, including Raymond Becker, the US vice president. Eventually what he predicted came to pass.

The northern hemisphere is the origin of three super storms. These hurricane-like storms sweep across the world freezing everything in their path, painting the planet with ice.

A massive hail storm meanwhile rains down on Tokyo. The film answers “what would happen if a new ice age occurred” dramatically and graphically.

We are taken on a story of desperation, hopelessness, and chaos as man is left powerless against the elements.

Another great example is an all-time favorite, the 1998 classic Armageddon. Many man vs nature scenarios end with the latter winning, but this film takes the lesser trodden road.

Scientists discover a world-ending asteroid headed for earth in a matter of days. A group of brave people with special skills are sought to avert the disaster.

Eventually, they succeed, but the protagonist pays the price with his life, as does most of the team.

He manually detonates a bomb on the asteroid, after the remote switch fails, saving humanity who were watching with bated breath the entire time on screen.

Here’s the trailer for this movie:

Focus on characters first

With large scale disasters, most newbie writers will focus on the event itself. They focus on the effects of giant hurricane or an earthquake.

This is a mistake.

Many movies have already been made about snow storms, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. What will make your screenplay stand out is character development. Humanize your script with compelling characters that are worth rooting for.

✈️ Look at Armageddon.

There’s this moment in the movie, right before they take off to stop the asteroid. It’s a candid moment when the crew does an acapella version of Leaving on a Jet Plane:

It’s a sad yet cute moment. You have the young lovers A.J. and Grace, and Grace’s father Harry, who disapproved of their relationship. There’s the crew, who know it’s a one-way ticket to the asteroid. Yet here they are… facing their last moments on Earth… singing a John Denver song. 

Ironically, John Denver died of a plane crash himself. Perhaps, a little touch of foreshadowing from the writer?

It’s moments like these, when both plot and character come together, that make movie magic.

Real-life scenarios – using history to tell a man vs nature story

An emblem of cinematic excellence, James Cameron’s masterpiece The Titanic is a great example of how real-life events can influence a man vs nature story.

Here’s the trailer:

Save for the fictional romance between the two main characters, the film retells the very real tragedy of the ill-fated RMS Titanic.

The real ship sank after brushing against an iceberg in 1912, killing 1500 of the 2,240 onboard. It remains one of the biggest marine disasters of the 20th century.

The Titanic was built as an unsinkable and indestructible vessel. But man plans and God laughs. The chilling events of watching the ship slowly fall apart takes the audience on an emotional rollercoaster of cosmic magnitude.

The Andrea Gail is speculated by conspiracy theorists to have gone down within the same general vicinity as the Titanic.

Unlike the former, the remains of this commercial fishing vessel have never been found.

🚢 The ship provided real-life inspiration for the 2000 epic The Perfect Storm that recaptures the misfortunes nine years after it happened. 

🚢 vanishes somewhere in the North Atlantic Ocean, taking with her the entirety of a six-man crew. The film follows the events leading up to the disappearance in heart-breaking fashion.

Other examples of true story-based natural disaster films include Surviving Japan and The Land of Hope. Both films recount the 2011 Tohoku earthquake in Japan and the resulting Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster.

Again, even with real life man vs. nature events, focus on the characters. Make the audience care about the lives of those affected by the wrath of nature. Make them want to stay until the very (even if bitter) end. 

The Man vs Beast approach

Lastly, the man vs nature conflict can also take a literal approach, where people are pitted against a wild animal. If you grew up in the 70s, the blockbuster Jaws instantly springs to mind.

Here’s the trailer for the movie:

Adapted for film from a similarly themed and named novel by Peter Benchley, Jaws entails a marine predator that terrorizes the resort town of Amity.

Attracted by a 24-buffet of humanity, a great white shark plays the villain of Amity island. His menu includes fishermen, odd-hour skinny divers, children, women, and basically anyone he can find.

Characters battle the massive predator unsuccessfully until it is finally stopped and eventually killed by harpoons. The film’s success gave way to three more sequels, with the Brody family involved each time.

Chief of Police Martin Brody kills the first monster in the initial movie, and in the final sequel, one shark comes back to settle old scores.

The 1978 horror thriller Piranha debuted three years after the first Jaws. It’s a great illustration of the man vs beast methodology in screenplay yet again. Not as massive as a great white, the school of ancient piranhas is equally fearsome and cringeworthy.

Here’s the trailer for the movie:

Their ravenous appetite sees them chew through anything they set their scent too, including unsuspecting humans. Although not as successful as Jaws, Piranha also goes to show that not all good villains walk on two legs.

Some have fins, swim like a bullet, and are blessed with teeth that put a power saw to shame.  

In the man vs beast approach, the movie can go either way. Mostly the people win.

However, the plot typically ends with a twist, e.g. a flickering eyelid, etc., that leaves the door open for a sequel. 

Everybody loves a good epic

Despite our incredible knowledge of science, we still don’t understand (or have yet to discover) everything there is to know about nature. It’s probably why audiences flock to theaters to watch a good man vs. nature flic.

Whether it’s fighting a giant shark or the King Kong of gorillas, movies with man vs. nature can be epic battles worthy of multiple sequels. And each time audiences come because…

👉 Who wouldn’t watch King Kong scale the Empire State Building to save his blonde girlfriend?

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